Screening is looking for cancer before a person has any symptoms. This can help find cancer at an early stage. When abnormal tissue or cancer is found early, it may be easier to treat. By the time symptoms appear, cancer may have begun to spread.
Scientists are trying to better understand which people are more likely to get certain types of cancer. They also study the things we do and the things around us to see if they cause cancer. This information helps doctors recommend who should be screened for cancer, which screening tests should be used, and how often the tests should be done.
It is important to remember that your doctor does not necessarily think you have cancer if he or she suggests a screening test. Screening tests are given when you have no cancer symptoms.
If a screening test result is abnormal, you may need to have more tests done to find out if you have cancer. These are called diagnostic tests.
Oral cavity cancer forms in any of these tissues of the oral cavity:
Anatomy of the oral cavity. The oral cavity includes the lips, hard palate (the bony front portion of the roof of the mouth), soft palate (the muscular back portion of the roof of the mouth), retromolar trigone (the area behind the wisdom teeth), front two-thirds of the tongue, gingiva (gums), buccal mucosa (the inner lining of the lips and cheeks), and floor of the mouth under the tongue.
Oropharyngeal cancer forms in any of these tissues of the oropharynx:
Most oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers start in squamous cells, the thin, flat cells that line the lips, oral cavity, and oropharynx. Cancer that forms in squamous cells is called squamous cell carcinoma.
See the following PDQ summaries for more information about the screening, diagnosis, and treatment of oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer:
Over the past ten years, the number of new cases and deaths from oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer slightly increased in white men and women. The number slightly decreased among black men and women.
Oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer is more common in men than in women. Although oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer may occur in adults of any age, it occurs most often in those aged 55 to 64 years.
France, Brazil, and parts of Asia have much higher rates of oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer than most other countries.
The number of new cases of oropharyngeal cancer caused by certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV) infection has increased. One kind of HPV, called HPV 16, is often passed from one person to another during sexual activity.Different factors increase or decrease the risk of oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer.
Anything that increases your chance of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Anything that decreases your chance of getting a disease is called a protective factor.
For information about risk factors and protective factors for oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer, see the PDQ summary on Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer Prevention.
Some screening tests are used because they have been shown to be helpful both in finding cancers early and in decreasing the chance of dying from these cancers. Other tests are used because they have been shown to find cancer in some people; however, it has not been proven in clinical trials that use of these tests will decrease the risk of dying from cancer.
Scientists study screening tests to find those with the fewest risks and most benefits. Cancer screening trials also are meant to show whether early detection (finding cancer before it causes symptoms) decreases a person's chance of dying from the disease. For some types of cancer, the chance of recovery is better if the disease is found and treated at an early stage.
Clinical trials that study cancer screening methods are taking place in many parts of the country. Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the NCI website.There is no standard or routine screening test for oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer.
Screening for oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer may be done during a routine check-up by a dentist or medical doctor. The exam will include looking for lesions, including areas of leukoplakia (an abnormal white patch of cells) and erythroplakia (an abnormal red patch of cells). Leukoplakia and erythroplakia lesions on the mucous membranes may become cancerous.
If lesions are seen in the mouth, the following procedures may be used to find abnormal tissue that might become oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancer:
More than half of oral and oropharyngeal cancers have already spread to lymph nodes or other areas by the time they are found. No studies have shown that screening would decrease the risk of dying from this disease.
Decisions about screening tests can be difficult. Not all screening tests are helpful and most have risks. Before having any screening test, you may want to discuss the test with your doctor. It is important to know the risks of the test and whether it has been proven to reduce the risk of dying from cancer.The risks of oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer screening include the following:Finding oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancer may not improve health or help a person live longer.
Some cancers never cause symptoms or become life-threatening, but if found by a screening test, the cancer may be treated. Finding these cancers is called overdiagnosis. It is not known if treatment of these cancers would help you live longer than if no treatment were given, and treatments for cancer, such as surgery and radiation therapy, may have serious side effects.
Screening may also find oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers that have already spread and cannot be cured. When these cancers are found, treatment may cause serious side effects and not help a person live longer.False-negative test results can occur.
Screening test results may appear to be normal even though oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer is present. A person who receives a false-negative test result (one that shows there is no cancer when there really is) may delay seeking medical care even if there are symptoms.False-positive test results can occur.
Screening test results may appear to be abnormal even though no cancer is present. A false-positive test result (one that shows there is cancer when there really isn't) can cause anxiety and is usually followed by more tests and procedures (such as biopsy). which also have risks.Misdiagnosis can occur.
A biopsy is needed to diagnose oral and oropharyngeal cancer. Cells or tissues are removed from the oral cavity or oropharynx and viewed under a microscope by a pathologist to check for signs of cancer. When the cells are cancer and the pathologist reports them as not being cancer, the cancer is misdiagnosed. Cancer is also misdiagnosed when the cells are not cancer and the pathologist reports there is cancer. When cancer is misdiagnosed, treatment that is needed may not be given or treatment may be given that is not needed.
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This PDQ cancer information summary has current information about oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer screening. It is meant to inform and help patients, families, and caregivers. It does not give formal guidelines or recommendations for making decisions about health care.
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The information in this patient summary was taken from the health professional version, which is reviewed regularly and updated as needed, by the PDQ Screening and Prevention Editorial Board.
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The best way to cite this PDQ summary is:
PDQ® Screening and Prevention Editorial Board. PDQ Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer Screening. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Updated <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/types/head-and-neck/patient/oral-screening-pdq. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>. [PMID: 26389441]
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Physicians version: CDR0000062752
Date first published: 2008-07-01 Date last modified: 2018-01-12
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